The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 17, 2021 1:00 am

Best of sports on big screen

Writer ranks top 20 favorites from the genre

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

It was about three months ago when I had to reevaluate my existence as a sportswriter/amateur movie critic. While teaching a class at Indiana Tech, I quipped about a scene from “Bull Durham” – the one where Crash Davis tells Ebby Calvin LaLoosh to learn his clichés – and was met with blank stares.

No one else in the classroom, all athletes mind you, had seen or even heard of perhaps the greatest sports movie of all time. The lone baseball player took my advice, tried to watch it, and got through about 15 minutes before he gave up, describing it as too old and too unfunny.

It got me thinking that when us codgers (I'm 45) talk about sports movies, we maybe don't consider how they've aged cinematically and culturally, if they've been copied so much that they've become trite, or if they just don't resonate anymore.

Recently, I was forwarded a link to sports betting platform that looked at sports movie box office receipts adjusted for inflation – topped by “Rocky IV” and with the horrendous Jaden Smith version of “The Karate Kid” at No. 4 – and I realized there's no correlation between money made and quality.

So, let's fix that by looking at my all-time sports movies, accounting for excellence, appeal to those of all ages, and how they've stood the test of time.

20. “Victory” – Come for Sylvester Stallone playing soccer alongside Pelé, stay for the message that playing sports is somehow more important than escaping the Nazis.

19. “Fever Pitch” –It's a remake, but no movie better sums up how ridiculous we can become as we try to balance love of sports with everything else.

18. “The Fighter” – Terrific David O'Russell direction of a true boxing story, partially done as a documentary within a documentary. Christian Bale deservedly won an Oscar for portraying Micky Ward's half-brother, Dick Eklund.

17. “Moneyball” – The screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin manages to make analytics understandable and entertaining for non-sports fans. Philip Seymour Hoffman as baseball manager Art Howe, so worth it.

16. “42” – Chadwick Boseman embodies Jackie Robinson. Harrison Ford is moving as Branch Rickey. It feels a smidge watered down, but ably commemorates the most important time in sports history.

15. “Rush” –You've got to be a little nuts to be a Formula 1 driver and this captures it with breathtaking cinematography. Daniel Brühl gives an otherworldly performance as Niki Lauda.

14. “The Rookie” – Only one movie, “Rocky,” better epitomizes the message that you should never give up on your dreams, even if that means enduring Double-A baseball at age 35 and having to help your kids with their homework over pay phones.

13. “Million Dollar Baby” – A beautifully crafted Best Picture winner, it's equal parts inspiring and gut-wrenching, and proof we need more female-centric sports movies.

12. “Major League” – A baseball team made up of misfits, just to force a move to Miami, may be more plausible now than when the movie came out in 1989. The hilarity of Willie Mays Hayes is topped only by the genius casting of broadcaster Bob Uecker as (sort of) himself.

11. “The Wrestler” – Mickey Rourke probably should have won the Oscar that went to Sean Penn for “Milk,” after a performance that made skeptics realize just how difficult, and brutal, pro wrestling can be – especially if you're over the hill.

10. “Bull Durham” – Captures baseball – without the hokeyness of “Field of Dreams” or “The Natural” – while giving us some of the most memorable lines in history. Just breathe through your eyelids, like the lava lizards of the Galapagos Islands, and enjoy.

9. “Caddyshack” –Comedic titans Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and, especially, Ted Knight deliver. It's ridiculous and maybe too close to home for the country club crowd.

8. “Tin Cup” – While “Caddyshack” hasn't aged well, “Tin Cup” just gets better. It might be Kevin Costner's best sports performance, Don Johnson is an underrated villain, and hitting “chili peppers” at Lee Janzen on the driving range is hysterical.

7. “Slap Shot” –Minor-league hockey has always been a ridiculous place, full of colorful characters from the ice to the press box, and this captures it. The Hanson Brothers, Ogie Ogilthorpe, Dickie Dunn – cinematic gold.

6. “Seabiscuit” – Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, this inspiring true horse-racing story is made better by the darkness in the performances of Chris Cooper and Tobey Maguire. Everyone who has experienced a hardship will find a character to relate to – even if it's Seabiscuit himself.

5. “Hoosiers” – It seems every week, I see another movie or show with a Jimmy Chitwood trope. Which is to say Hoosiers doesn't hold the charm it once did, despite the wonderful music and visuals depicting Indiana gyms. Gene Hackman is perfect, like when he quips, “My team is on the floor,” and goes with only four players.

4. “Warrior” –Chances are you haven't seen this – it made only $23.3 million – and you've missed out. If this came out after 2011, it would have more enjoyed mixed-martial arts' popularity. Tom Hardy may have become the Tom Hardy we know in this, angrily dealing with topics of sports, family, military and social media. Nick Nolte is jaw-droppingly good.

3. “Rocky” – Made for only $1 million in 1976, the underdog story has a grittiness and relies on the acting. The boxing is realistic, and the ending still feels unexpected.

2. “Friday Night Lights” – It spawned a good TV show, but the movie is masterful. Pay attention to the sound mixing that incorporates music into football action. It accurately captures the pressures high school sports put on players and coaches, and parents and kids.

1. “Miracle” – Full disclosure, I'm a hockey writer. It doesn't matter. This movie pulls off a difficult task, recreating maybe the most famous athletics story in history, in a difficult-to-film sport, and does it pretty faithfully. Gavin O'Connor, who also directed “Warrior,” knows how to balance sports and drama. Non-actors light up the ice and it feels like you're in 1980. Kurt Russell embodies U.S. coach Herb Brooks. If you don't get inspired, you're not human.

Justin A. Cohn, senior writer for The Journal Gazette, has covered Fort Wayne sports since 1997. He can be reached at, 260-461-8429 or on social media @sportsicohn.

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